Will the House of Commons now “do the right thing” and vote to protect rural residents from toxic pesticides?

10 October, 2020

At the end of last month there was an extraordinary vote in the House of Lords that saw the adoption of a vital amendment into the UK’s Agriculture Bill for the protection of rural residents and communities from the cocktails of toxic pesticides sprayed on UK crops.

Watching the Upper House do the right thing – as I had said in my previous article they needed to do – by finally voting in the interests of human health rather than in the big business interests of other sectors (eg. farming unions, pesticide companies, among others) was truly heartening after a 20 year battle to get such protection written into law.

This was a significant victory for all those affected by the use of agricultural pesticides sprayed in our localities. As the Lords adopted new Clause 38 entitled “Application of pesticides: limitations on use to protect human health,” is for prohibiting the application of any pesticide for the purposes of agriculture or horticulture near – (a) any building used for human habitation, (b) any building or open space used for work or recreation, or (c) any public or private building where members of the public may be present, including but not limited to, schools and childcare nurseries, and hospitals.

The Government has fundamentally failed to protect people in the countryside from agricultural pesticides and has also knowingly allowed rural residents and communities to continue to suffer from both acute and chronic adverse health effects without taking any action to prevent the exposures, risks, and adverse health impacts from occurring.

As I have always maintained from the outset of my campaign this is definitely one of biggest public health scandals of all time.

Yet there is the risk that this very welcome – and long fought for – victory may well be short-lived, as the Agriculture Bill returns to the House of Commons this Monday when MPs debate and vote on whether to keep in or kick out the Lords adopted amendments.

Much of the focus – both politically and in the mainstream media – has been on two other amendments adopted by the House of Lords related to trade. This has become a titanic tussle between those – headed up by food campaigner and chef Jamie Oliver – wanting to maintain the UK’s existing food and animal welfare standards and those – headed up reportedly by Dominic Cummings, the unelected and seemingly wholly unaccountable advisor to Boris Johnson – who have their eyes firmly on the future trade deals post-Brexit between the UK and other countries, particular with the United States. 

Existing UK pesticides standards not protective

It has to be said that whilst other food and animal welfare standards in the UK may well be high, when it comes to the use of agricultural pesticides there has been a complete absence of any protection for rural residents and communities under the UK standards, and indeed even under the EU regime. The really rather astonishing gaps in the approvals process and protection system for rural residents and communities have been raised by the campaign I run – the UK Pesticides Campaign – since 2001.

Even DEFRA’s very own former Chief Scientist Advisor, Professor Ian Boyd. In an article in ‘Science’ in 2017 (when still in post in the top science job at DEFRA) issued a damning assessment of the regulatory approach worldwide for pesticides sprayed on crops including that the impacts of “dosing whole landscapes” has been ignored; and that the assumption by regulators that it is “safe” to use pesticides at industrial scales across landscapes “is false” and must change. He has since repeatedly advocated that pesticides need to be designed out of farming systems. When I highlighted his comments at a meeting in 2018 with DEFRA Minister George Eustice he said he agreed with that position, (not that that was reflected of course in any way, shape or form in the Government’s original draft of the Agriculture Bill nor the revised version that followed).

Therefore I cannot stress enough how the existing pesticides standards in the UK (and the EU) simply do not currently protect rural residents and communities and which has just been backed by the House of Lords by a considerable majority with the adoption of new Clause 38 into the Agriculture Bill for prohibiting pesticide use near homes, schools, childcare nurseries, hospitals, amongst other places where people are present.

Clause 38 of the UK Agriculture Bill

Further, not only are the standards on agricultural pesticides in the UK not protective of human health, but they are clearly not protective of other species such as bees and other pollinators, birds, and overall biodiversity, and nor of the wider environment in general considering the increasing evidence of damage to air, water quality, and soils.

Therefore it is quite wrong for anyone to say that the standards on pesticides in the UK are high and fully protective of human health and the environment, as they simply are not. (And that is even before any trade deals with other countries where there is the risk of many more of these health and environmentally damaging pesticides coming in!)

The bottom line is that the risks and adverse health and environmental impacts of agricultural pesticides exist as a direct result of the actual widespread release in the first place of cocktails of these highly toxic chemicals. As once pesticides have been dispersed they cannot be controlled and have been shown to be transported in the air and travel considerable distances from where originally applied, including at high levels.

Further, this is irrespective as to whether there is any wind or not. Indeed volatilization (vapour lift off) can occur days, weeks, even months after applications further exposing those living in the locality and which obviously has nothing whatsoever to do with wind! 

Full cross party support in the Lords

The new Clause 38 to the Agriculture Bill as amended by the House of Lords on Report (and which is also listed as amendment 11 in the Commons Lords amendments document) had full cross party support – having been tabled by former DEFRA Food and Farming Minister Lord Whitty – and was agreed with a considerable majority. 

As Lord Whitty said in the debate on his amendment on 22nd September that it is “vital” to protect human beings “primarily, residents in rural areas, by requiring spraying to be well away from homes, public buildings and places where the public are congregated. In particular, it moves towards protecting those who live, full-time, adjacent to crops that are subject to blanket applications and those who attend public spaces adjacent to such fields.” And that it “requires Ministers to come forward with regulations establishing a minimum distance between such applications and the buildings.”

As Conservative peer Lord Randall of Uxbridge then stressed in the debate “…this is about protecting human life. If we have not yet learned that people sometimes assure us that everything is all right when it patently is not, we need think only of the tobacco industry…and of asbestos. We would be failing ourselves, the public and our fellow human beings if we did not recognise the harmful nature of pesticides…However, one thing we can do is to get this amendment into the Bill, because it would protect so many people.”

As the Shadow Spokesperson for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Baroness Jones of Whitchurch then made clear in the debate “This is an immediate issue of public health protection.” Indeed there are now nearly 12,300 people – the majority of which are affected rural residents – who have signed the ongoing petition to the Prime Minister and DEFRA Secretary that calls for the same protective measures contained in new Clause 38 (amendment 11).

The petition has been supported by a number of prominent figures including Hillsborough QC Michael Mansfield, the Prime Minister’s own father Stanley Johnson, Jonathon Porritt, Gordon Roddick, DEFRA non-executive board member Ben Goldsmith, amongst others.

Operators are protected but rural residents are not

While operators generally have protection when using agricultural pesticides – such as use of personal protective equipment (PPE), respirators, and will be in filtered tractor cabs when spraying pesticides – rural residents and communities have absolutely no protection at all.

To see an example of the spraying of agricultural pesticides in the locality of the home and garden of one family see video here.

It is important to stress that this is about the permitted dispersal – under Government policy – of crop pesticides in the locality of homes, schools, nurseries etc., and the exposures, risks, and acute and chronic adverse health impacts for rural residents, and therefore this is obviously not about the misuse, abuse or illegal use of pesticides, but the actual use of agricultural pesticides in the locality of such people and places.

The Lords fully recognised in its debates on this amendment that more than enough evidence already exists of the risks and adverse health impacts of agricultural pesticides on rural residents and communities. Yet any reports of harmful effects are supposed to inform that the approvals system is failing. It is not supposed to be the case that toxic chemicals are approved and then monitoring reports the damage, but that such chemicals that pose a risk to human health are not approved in the first place.

The principal aim of pesticide policy is clearly based on the risk of harm, and not that harm has to have already occurred, and so no one should be put at risk of harm from any pesticide.

Yet reports of acute and chronic harm for rural residents and communities have existed for decades and the only way to prevent such harm occurring and protect human health is to prohibit the use of agricultural pesticides in substantial distances in the locality of where rural communities are present, as no pesticides should ever have been permitted to be sprayed in the locality of such unprotected people.

The new Clause 38 in the Agriculture Bill is therefore crucially important for securing the protection of rural residents and communities from agricultural pesticides, especially the most vulnerable groups such as babies, children, pregnant women, the elderly and those already ill and/or disabled – none of whom should ever have been exposed to these poisons in the first place!

Tory backbenchers

Indications are that, as per in the Lords, opposition parties will again support this crucial amendment for public health protection.

Therefore, whether new Clause 38 is kept in the Agriculture Bill does now appear to hinge on what Tory backbenchers decide to do and if any have the conscience – and of course the courage – to rebel against the Government whip. One such backbencher, having explained he was already going to be rebelling on another amendment said “I cannot rebel twice as I will be seen as a serial rebeller.”

My first reaction on hearing that is that this is a serious public health protection failure that is exposing millions of rural citizens to harmful chemicals and so any concern for how one is viewed doesn’t even come into it when compared with the catastrophic damage pesticides are causing to human health and life. But secondly, surely when it is a case of the Government getting it wrong then it is absolutely right for anyone with a moral compass to disassociate from that position. We need people to speak up and speak out on this public health policy failing sooner rather than later, as the health and lives of so many innocent people depend on those in a position to do so doing the right thing to secure our protection.

The voting record will be able to show which Tory MPs, if any, did do the right thing.

Further, unlike the trade amendments, new Clause 38 to the Agriculture Bill obviously has nothing whatsoever to do with Brexit. As it is a necessary and crucial public health protection measure that has been urgently needed to be introduced for decades. Indeed I have campaigned for it both here in the UK and in the EU since 2001 (as the EU regime also does not properly protect rural residents and communities from pesticides).

Therefore it is completely immaterial what side of the Brexit fence one is sat when it comes to this particular amendment, as it is a measure that was needed to be introduced when the UK was in the EU and a measure just as needed now we are out.

In hope..

All that the many thousands of rural residents and communities affected by this glaring protection failure can hope for now is that the House of Commons follows the House of Lords example and votes for the protection of human health to ensure that the vital new Clause 38 (amendment 11) on prohibiting agricultural pesticides in the locality of our homes, schools, nurseries, hospitals and other places, is kept in the Agriculture Bill.

Will the House of Commons now do the right thing and vote to protect rural residents and communities from the cocktails of toxic pesticides sprayed on crops? 

Rural residents across the UK are very much hoping that – this Monday – MPs will stand up for the health and safety of their constituents!


  • Georgina Downs is a journalist and campaigner. She runs the UK Pesticides Campaign, which specifically represents rural residents affected by pesticides sprayed in the locality of residents’ homes, as well as schools, playgrounds, among other areas.